Metaphors of Light and Darkness: The Politics of `Black armband' History.

Author:McKenna, Mark

We are witnessing a deliberate attack on our values, a deliberate attack on those who wish to promote merit and excellence, a deliberate attack on our heritage and our past. And there are those who gnaw away at our national self-respect, rewriting (our) history as centuries of unrelieved doom, oppression and failure -- as days of hopelessness, not days of hope. (Margaret Thatcher, My Vision, 1975)(1). On March 12 1997, the University of Melbourne's Australia Centre organised a seminar on the issue of `black armband' history, a term first coined by Professor Geoffrey Blainey in his 1993 Latham lecture,(2) and one eagerly taken up by those occasional bedfellows, John Howard and Pauline Hanson, following the election of the Howard government in March 1996.(3)

The seminar attracted considerable publicity, due in part to the presence of historian and former Keating speech writer Don Watson. Watson commenced his paper with a mild rebuke.

This forum should have happened a couple of years ago when the terms `black armband history' and `guilt industry' first crept into national debates. The history profession should have felt the insult and let it be known. Historians should have recognised it as a pernicious, philistine and politically motivated assault on their profession.(4) While sympathising with Watson's plea for a more pugnacious historical profession, I want to suggest that his representation of the black armband debate is incomplete. In this paper, I advance three arguments which challenge Watson's perspective and question the prevailing conceptions surrounding the current debate.(5)

First, the terms `guilt industry' and `black armband', at least in spirit if not word, have been a common feature of political debate in Australia for much longer than the `last couple' of years. We err if we date the debate from Blainey's Latham lecture in 1993. John Howard's attempt to denounce the black armband view of history is merely the most recent manifestation of a conservative offensive on the use of historical revisionism which began in the early 1980s.

Second, although Geoffrey Blainey may have coined the phrase `black armband history' in 1993, he was not the first to apply the words `black armband' in the context of Australian history. This was done by Aboriginal Australians through their emphasis on historical dispossession in the years before the bicentennial celebrations. In a manner which bears the bitter irony of much appropriation of Aboriginal culture, Blainey used two words also found in the Aboriginal protest movement, added the word `history', and managed to transform a spirit of mourning and defiance into a brand mark of gloom and disloyalty.

Third, and perhaps most crucial, much of the public discussion surrounding John Howard's adoption of the black armband phrase mistakenly focuses on the issue of its historical validity. Don Watson, for example, sees Howard's foray as an attack "on the historical profession".(6) Broadsheet columnists set out to unravel the debate by assessing the work of various historians; searching in vain for the black armband or white blindfold school of Australian history.(7) While there has been a fiercely contested debate within the historical profession over issues of emphasis, perspective, and methodology encouraged by the critical frameworks of the new histories, and associated in particular with the revisionism of particular historians such as Clark, Reynolds, Lake and Burgmann, it is important to distinguish the professional debate from the much broader political debate.(8) The Blainey-Howard assault on black armband history is not so much an attack on the historical profession as a political strategy. It is concerned more with the use of history than the nature of history.

A better way of understanding the Government-led campaign against black armband history is to view the phrase `black-armband' as yet another metaphor in the Howard government's armoury of political slogans--another conscript in the cause of defending the mainstream. Seen as a strategic device of political language rather than a school of historical scholarship, black armband history becomes much more than history without light.

Finally, the political debate which circles the black armband label in Australia should not be perceived as a uniquely domestic phenomenon. Similar patterns of debate can be discerned in Britain, the United States and Western Europe--especially under conservative regimes during the 1980s. One outstanding feature of the popular appeal of both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was their ability to conscript a vigorous, rosy and sanitised past to the service of a jingoistic national identity.(9)

`Monumental' history, that history which venerates the great deeds, events, and heroes of the past, was described in 1874 by Friederich Nietzsche in his essay The Use and Abuse of History. Nietzsche's `Monumental' history has always been one of the essential building blocks of the modern nation-state.(10) Denouncing the chauvinistic excesses of Bismarckian Germany, Nietzsche demanded a critical history, one that interrogated and finally condemned the past.(11) The `critical' histories of the 1970s and 1980s are the histories of indigenous peoples which have exposed the dispossession, exclusion and marginalisation of the American Indians, Australian Aborigines, and of all colonised peoples. In addition, there are the histories which have underwritten the new social movements -- women's history, environmental history and ethnic histories. These are the critical histories which the post-war conservatives in Western democracies have feared most.(12) The grand narrative of progress is threatened; the fiction of a national and egalitarian community exposed.

The writing of critical history is a political act. The retrieved critical past carries the potential to disrupt the contemporary political order, just as the retrieved monumental or antiquarian past carries the potential to reinforce it. In politics, the use of history demands the abuse of history. Reliance upon history as the justification for present day political philosophy requires a history that is clear and simple.(13) The political use of history insists that history be one dimensional. History becomes a flag to be waved, a badge of honour and pride or an emblem of victimisation and betrayal. Such `uses' of history are, of course, common to all human societies.(14) Although comparative analysis lies outside the scope of this paper, it is worth remembering that Australian history has been subjected to pressures and trends found in other post-industrial societies. The so-called `crisis in history', the fragmentation of the grand narrative and a single knowable past, coupled with the decline of history as an academic discipline, coexists with a burgeoning popular interest in the past.

In the post-modern world, history is often a commodity of the heritage industry--an industry without a discipline.(15) John Howard's recent attempt to reclaim a more balanced and `national' view of Australian history should be understood not only as a knee-jerk response to the Keating government's use of history, but also as one typical of conservative responses to international currents in historical scholarship.

Looking for Black Armbands

So far as Australia is concerned, the aboriginal population has practically disappeared, having succumbed to the refining influences of `white' civilisation. The history of their gradual disappearance, if it contained anything like a faithful account of the methods employed to bring about the result, would not make very inspiriting reading. The morality of White Australia is beyond the pale of discussion. (Gizen No Teki, Colorphobia--an exposure of the White Australia Fallacy, 1903) Writing in 1959, J.A. La Nauze observed that Aboriginal Australians had appeared in Australian history only as a "melancholy anthropological footnote".(16) Forty years after La Nauze's survey of Australian historiography, the footnote has been elevated to a chapter but the melancholy remains. The Howard-Blainey-Hanson assault on black armband history in the 1990s can only be understood against the background of the breaking of the `Great Australian Silence'.(17) The work of W.E.H. Stanner, C.D. Rowley, Bernard Smith, John Mulvaney, H.C. Coombs, Henry Reynolds, Andrew Markus, Ann McGrath and Bain Attwood, among others, has forced a fundamental shift in the way in which Australian history has been `contested' over the last decade.(18) The exposure of the dispossession and systematic destruction of Aboriginal society has threatened the moral legitimacy of the nation state. This is especially so since the handing down of the High Court's Mabo and Wik decisions, both of which made use of recent historical scholarship on contact history.(19)

In addition, Aboriginal protest movements, which rely heavily on the acknowledgment of past injustice as an impetus for their own political program, have had their message carried through the mass media. In a manner reminiscent of the ongoing debates in Germany and Japan, the issues of `guilt', `responsibility', `apology', and the `Great Forgetting' pervade much of the contemporary public discussion surrounding Australian history.(20) The exposure of the invasion and seizure of the Australian continent has left a frail notion of settlement. This fragility has been a persistent presence in White Australia since 1788. Aware of the power of the Aboriginal story to unsettle white myths, Henry Parkes quipped in NSW Parliament as far back as 1888 that the NSW Government should not organise centenary celebrations for the Aborigines because it would only remind them that they had been robbed.(21) In the same year, Edward Pulsford, the NSW free trader who would later sit in the Senate, reflected on the position of Aboriginal peoples after the first one hundred years of settlement:

We claim that Cook...

To continue reading